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The Joshua Bell experiment

May 14, 2012

You have probably heard the story of the violin virtuoso Joshua Bell playing in the Washington Metro. Thousands of people passed by without stopping to listen. This actually did happen – it was organized by the Washington Post. I really dislike the typical email or Facebook post about this story. Not because of the “experiment” itself – I think the idea was pretty interesting. I dislike the way it is typically told, and the conclusions that are often implied, if not stated outright. More often than not, it is mentioned that the same people who would pay hundreds of dollars to see Joshua Bell in concert will walk right past him in the subway. Some add that it was the children who wanted to stay and listen while the busy parents dragged them off. The implication seems to be that only a tiny fraction of us, or the children who are not yet completely jaded, can really appreciate the beauty around us. Is it that we pay an exorbitant sum to keep up a pretense in public? Another email asks: “If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?”

I think these conclusions are completely wrong. Indeed, there are two important factors that both conspired to make it very difficult for even the most ardent music lover to pass the “Joshua Bell subway test.” Both of these are typically mentioned, but not really explored in a typical email:

The first problem is the fickleness of our attention. We live under the illusion that we are aware of everything around us. In reality we can attend to only to one or two things at a time. A remarkable illustration of this is the “Gorillas in our Midst” experiment. I would say that many passer-bys didn’t even see Joshua Bell because they were simply not attending to him. We can bemoan the limits of our attention, but they are what they are. If you somehow were able to attend to multiple things at once, I doubt that you would be able to make sense of the jumble – you probably would not be able to call it “attending”. I think that the suggestion that we should just open our eyes and take in more of the world around us is just nonsense.

The second problem is that of context (also mentioned briefly in the emails, but not given sufficient attention). Let me illustrate this with another example – it has been shown repeatedly that experts cannot tell white wine from red wine when food coloring is added to it, or when both are served chilled. Can we conclude that we are fooling ourselves when we prefer a bottle Mollydooker to a bottle of Two-Buck Chuck (I like both but, prefer the first)? The problem here is context. Our expectations of what something should taste like (or how it will be experienced) shape how it will actually be experienced. Certainly, the price that we payed for the experience will play a role – Two-Buck Chuck may actually taste better if we pay a premium for it. Expectations can strongly affect our  senses (more technical discussions here and nice recent illustration pointing towards neural mechanisms here).

So what does the Joshua Bell experiment tell us in the end? I can’t say for sure, but I will speculate, that many who passed Bell that day did not really see him. And those who did actually experienced his playing as they would that of another street musician, because that was their expectation. And many from both groups would have truly enjoyed seeing him in concert where their attention is undivided, and their expectations match what is presented. The experiment was a good opportunity to explain something about how our brain works, as the WP article did to some extent, but not well. On the other hand the typical email invites us to feel pity for ourselves because our busy lives keep us so out of touch with the beauty around us. That’s bullshit – you are lucky to be able to attend to a single thing at a time. Choose that thing wisely.


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  1. Actually, the message that I get from the press (there’s an excellent Ted podcast interview of the person who did the experiment/stunt) is that our judgement is not objective and context dependent. The fact that we like wine better when we think it is more expensive informs us how our brain works and also shows how shallow we really our. Munch’s “The Scream” was recently sold at auction for over almost a hundred and twenty million dollars. Why would it’s value fall to zero if it were to be shown to be a forgery? Same painting, same canvas, same oils. I think the fact that we don’t notice street musicians is actually a generous interpretation. The truth is probably that most of us probably value Bell’s playing more because he’s famous.

    • Carson – I don’t think I can argue with that. My main issue with the WP article is that it mixed scientifically backed statements with observations that could have been just flukes. This is not atypical for this type of writing, but I think journalists can do better. But to your point, I do think that many of these experiences are genuine (although we can argue about what “genuine” means). Yes, you could say we are shallow. Or you could say that the context is very important, and sometimes critical, in determining an experience. It may come to the same thing, but it is a value judgement of how good or bad it is.

  2. Marianne permalink

    The reaction to the violinist probably had more to do with the crowd than with the context. The audience at the theatre is different from the ‘audience’ at the metro. If the metro audience comprised just the theatre audience, the outcome of the experiment would have been very different. Most of the metro crowd wouldn’t have paid $100 to hear the violinist at the theatre. Children aren’t conditioned one way or the other, and so are more open to art.

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